The border war of 1708 by John Greenleaf Whittier

Story type: Essay

The picturesque site of the now large village of Haverhill, on the Merrimac River, was occupied a century and a half ago by some thirty dwellings, scattered at unequal distances along the two principal roads, one of which, running parallel with the river, intersected the other, which ascended the hill northwardly and lost itself in the dark woods. The log huts of the first settlers had at that time given place to comparatively spacious and commodious habitations, framed and covered with sawed boards, and cloven clapboards, or shingles. They were, many of them, two stories in front, with the roof sloping off behind to a single one; the windows few and small, and frequently so fitted as to be opened with difficulty, and affording but a scanty supply of light and air. Two or three of the best constructed were occupied as garrisons, where, in addition to the family, small companies of soldiers were quartered. On the high grounds rising from the river stood the mansions of the well-defined aristocracy of the little settlement,–larger and more imposing, with projecting upper stories and carved cornices. On the front of one of these, over the elaborately wrought entablature of the doorway, might be seen the armorial bearings of the honored family of Saltonstall. Its hospitable door was now closed; no guests filled its spacious hall or partook of the rich delicacies of its ample larder. Death had been there; its venerable and respected occupant had just been borne by his peers in rank and station to the neighboring graveyard. Learned, affable, intrepid, a sturdy asserter of the rights and liberties of the Province, and so far in advance of his time as to refuse to yield to the terrible witchcraft delusion, vacating his seat on the bench and openly expressing his disapprobation of the violent and sanguinary proceedings of the court, wise in council and prompt in action,–not his own townsmen alone, but the people of the entire Province, had reason to mourn the loss of Nathaniel Saltonstall.

Four years before the events of which we are about to speak, the Indian allies of the French in Canada suddenly made their appearance in the westerly part of the settlement. At the close of a midwinter day six savages rushed into the open gate of a garrison-house owned by one Bradley, who appears to have been absent at the time. A sentinel, stationed in the house, discharged his musket, killing the foremost Indian, and was himself instantly shot down. The mistress of the house, a spirited young woman, was making soap in a large kettle over the fire. –She seized her ladle and dashed the boiling liquid in the faces of the assailants, scalding one of them severely, and was only captured after such a resistance as can scarcely be conceived of by the delicately framed and tenderly nurtured occupants of the places of our great- grandmothers. After plundering the house, the Indians started on their long winter march for Canada. Tradition says that some thirteen persons, probably women and children, were killed outright at the garrison. Goodwife Bradley and four others were spared as prisoners. The ground was covered with deep snow, and the captives were compelled to carry heavy burdens of their plundered household-stuffs; while for many days in succession they had no other sustenance than bits of hide, ground-nuts, the bark of trees, and the roots of wild onions, and lilies. In this situation, in the cold, wintry forest, and unattended, the unhappy young woman gave birth to a child. Its cries irritated the savages, who cruelly treated it and threatened its life. To the entreaties of the mother they replied, that they would spare it on the condition that it should be baptized after their fashion. She gave the little innocent into their hands, when with mock solemnity they made the sign of the cross upon its forehead, by gashing it with their knives, and afterwards barbarously put it to death before the eyes of its mother, seeming to regard the whole matter as an excellent piece of sport. Nothing so strongly excited the risibilities of these grim barbarians as the tears and cries of their victims, extorted by physical or mental agony. Capricious alike in their cruelties and their kindnesses, they treated some of their captives with forbearance and consideration and tormented others apparently without cause. One man, on his way to Canada, was killed because they did not like his looks, “he was so sour;” another, because he was “old and good for nothing.” One of their own number, who was suffering greatly from the effects of the scalding soap, was derided and mocked as a “fool who had let a squaw whip him;” while on the other hand the energy and spirit manifested by Goodwife Bradley in her defence was a constant theme of admiration, and gained her so much respect among her captors as to protect her from personal injury or insult. On her arrival in Canada she was sold to a French farmer, by whom she was kindly treated.

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In the mean time her husband made every exertion in his power to ascertain her fate, and early in the next year learned that she was a slave in Canada. He immediately set off through the wilderness on foot, accompanied only by his dog, who drew a small sled, upon which he carried some provisions for his sustenance, and a bag of snuff, which the Governor of the Province gave him as a present to the Governor of Canada. After encountering almost incredible hardships and dangers with a perseverance which shows how well he appreciated the good qualities of his stolen helpmate, he reached Montreal and betook himself to the Governor’s residence. Travel-worn, ragged, and wasted with cold and hunger, he was ushered into the presence of M. Vaudreuil. The courtly Frenchman civilly received the gift of the bag of snuff, listened to the poor fellow’s story, and put him in a way to redeem his wife without difficulty. The joy of the latter on seeing her husband in the strange land of her captivity may well be imagined. They returned by water, landing at Boston early in the summer.

There is a tradition that this was not the goodwife’s first experience of Indian captivity. The late Dr. Abiel Abbott, in his manuscript of Judith Whiting’s Recollections of the Indian Wars, states that she had previously been a prisoner, probably before her marriage. After her return she lived quietly at the garrison-house until the summer of the next year. One bright moonlit-night a party of Indians were seen silently and cautiously approaching. The only occupants of the garrison at that time were Bradley, his wife and children, and a servant. The three adults armed themselves with muskets, and prepared to defend themselves. Goodwife Bradley, supposing the Indians had come with the intention of again capturing her, encouraged her husband to fight to the last, declaring that she had rather die on her own hearth than fall into their hands. The Indians rushed upon the garrison, and assailed the thick oaken door, which they forced partly open, when a well-aimed shot from Goodwife Bradley laid the foremost dead on the threshold. The loss of their leader so disheartened them that they made a hasty retreat.

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The year 1707 passed away without any attack upon the exposed frontier settlement. A feeling of comparative security succeeded to the almost sleepless anxiety and terror of the inhabitants; and they were beginning to congratulate each other upon the termination of their long and bitter trials. But the end was not yet.

Early in the spring of 1708, the principal tribes of Indians in alliance with the French held a great council, and agreed to furnish three hundred warriors for an expedition to the English frontier.

They were joined by one hundred French Canadians and several volunteers, consisting of officers of the French army, and younger sons of the nobility, adventurous and unscrupulous. The Sieur de Chaillons, and Hertel de Rouville, distinguished as a partisan in former expeditions, cruel and unsparing as his Indian allies, commanded the French troops; the Indians, marshalled under their several chiefs, obeyed the general orders of La Perriere. A Catholic priest accompanied them. De Ronville, with the French troops and a portion of the Indians, took the route by the River St. Francois about the middle of summer. La Perriere, with the French Mohawks, crossed Lake Champlain. The place of rendezvous was Lake Nickisipigue. On the way a Huron accidentally killed one of his companions; whereupon the tribe insisted on halting and holding a council. It was gravely decided that this accident was an evil omen, and that the expedition would prove disastrous; and, in spite of the endeavors of the French officers, the whole band deserted. Next the Mohawks became dissatisfied, and refused to proceed. To the entreaties and promises of their French allies they replied that an infectious disease had broken out among them, and that, if they remained, it would spread through the whole army. The French partisans were not deceived by a falsehood so transparent; but they were in no condition to enforce obedience; and, with bitter execrations and reproaches, they saw the Mohawks turn back on their warpath. The diminished army pressed on to Nickisipigue, in the expectation of meeting, agreeably to their promise, the Norridgewock and Penobscot Indians. They found the place deserted, and, after waiting for some days, were forced to the conclusion that the Eastern tribes had broken their pledge of cooperation. Under these circumstances a council was held; and the original design of the expedition, namely, the destruction of the whole line of frontier towns, beginning with Portsmouth, was abandoned. They had still a sufficient force for the surprise of a single settlement; and Haverhill, on the Merrimac, was selected for conquest.

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In the mean time, intelligence of the expedition, greatly exaggerated in point of numbers and object, had reached Boston, and Governor Dudley had despatched troops to the more exposed out posts of the Provinces of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Forty men, under the command of Major Turner and Captains Price and Gardner, were stationed at Haverhill in the different garrison-houses. At first a good degree of vigilance was manifested; but, as days and weeks passed without any alarm, the inhabitants relapsed into their old habits; and some even began to believe that the rumored descent of the Indians was only a pretext for quartering upon them two-score of lazy, rollicking soldiers, who certainly seemed more expert in making love to their daughters, and drinking their best ale and cider, than in patrolling the woods or putting the garrisons into a defensible state. The grain and hay harvest ended without disturbance; the men worked in their fields, and the women pursued their household avocations, without any very serious apprehension of danger.

Among the inhabitants of the village was an eccentric, ne’er-do-well fellow, named Keezar, who led a wandering, unsettled life, oscillating, like a crazy pendulum, between Haverhill and Amesbury. He had a smattering of a variety of trades, was a famous wrestler, and for a mug of ale would leap over an ox-cart with the unspilled beverage in his hand. On one occasion, when at supper, his wife complained that she had no tin dishes; and, as there were none to be obtained nearer than Boston, he started on foot in the evening, travelled through the woods to the city, and returned with his ware by sunrise the next morning, passing over a distance of between sixty and seventy miles. The tradition of his strange habits, feats of strength, and wicked practical jokes is still common in his native town. On the morning of the 29th of the eighth month he was engaged in taking home his horse, which, according to his custom, he had turned into his neighbor’s rich clover field the evening previous. By the gray light of dawn he saw a long file of men marching silently towards the town. He hurried back to the village and gave the alarm by firing a gun. Previous to this, however, a young man belonging to a neighboring town, who had been spending the night with a young woman of the village, had met the advance of the war-party, and, turning back in extreme terror and confusion, thought only of the safety of his betrothed, and passed silently through a considerable part of the village to her dwelling. After he had effectually concealed her he ran out to give the alarm. But it was too late. Keezar’s gun was answered by the terrific yells, whistling, and whooping of the Indians. House after house was assailed and captured. Men, women, and children were massacred. The minister of the town was killed by a shot through his door. Two of his children were saved by the courage and sagacity of his negro slave Hagar. She carried them into the cellar and covered them with tubs, and then crouched behind a barrel of meat just in time to escape the vigilant eyes of the enemy, who entered the cellar and plundered it. She saw them pass and repass the tubs under which the children lay and take meat from the very barrel which concealed herself. Three soldiers were quartered in the house; but they made no defence, and were killed while begging for quarter.

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The wife of Thomas Hartshorne, after her husband and three sons had fallen, took her younger children into the cellar, leaving an infant on a bed in the garret, fearful that its cries would betray her place of concealment if she took it with her. The Indians entered the garret and tossed the child out of the window upon a pile of clapboards, where it was afterwards found stunned and insensible. It recovered, nevertheless, and became a man of remarkable strength and stature; and it used to be a standing joke with his friends that he had been stinted by the Indians when they threw him out of the window. Goodwife Swan, armed with a long spit, successfully defended her door against two Indians. While the massacre went on, the priest who accompanied the expedition, with some of the French officers, went into the meeting-house, the walls of which were afterwards found written over with chalk. At sunrise, Major Turner, with a portion of his soldiers, entered the village; and the enemy made a rapid retreat, carrying with them seventeen, prisoners. They were pursued and overtaken just as they were entering the woods; and a severe skirmish took place, in which the rescue of some of the prisoners was effected. Thirty of the enemy were left dead on the field, including the infamous Hertel de Rouville. On the part of the villagers, Captains Ayer and Wainwright and Lieutenant Johnson, with thirteen others, were killed. The intense heat of the weather made it necessary to bury the dead on the same day. They were laid side by side in a long trench in the burial- ground. The body of the venerated and lamented minister, with those of his wife and child, sleep in another part of the burial-ground, where may still be seen a rude monument with its almost llegible inscription:–

Clauditur hoc tumulo corpus Reverendi pii doctique viri D. Benjamin Rolfe, ecclesiae Christi quae est in Haverhill pastoris fidelissimi; qui domi suae ab hostibus barbare trucidatus. A laboribus suis requievit mane diei sacrae quietis, Aug. XXIX, anno Dom. MDCCVIII. AEtatis suae XLVI.”

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Of the prisoners taken, some escaped during the skirmish, and two or three were sent back by the French officers, with a message to the English soldiers, that, if they pursued the party on their retreat to Canada, the other prisoners should be put to death. One of them, a soldier stationed in Captain Wainwright’s garrison, on his return four years after, published an account of his captivity. He was compelled to carry a heavy pack, and was led by an Indian by a cord round his neck. The whole party suffered terribly from hunger. On reaching Canada the Indians shaved one side of his head, and greased the other, and painted his face. At a fort nine miles from Montreal a council was held in order to decide his fate; and he had the unenviable privilege of listening to a protracted discussion upon the expediency of burning him. The fire was already kindled, and the poor fellow was preparing to meet his doom with firmness, when it was announced to him that his life was spared. This result of the council by no means satisfied the women and boys, who had anticipated rare sport in the roasting of a white man and a heretic. One squaw assailed him with a knife and cut off one of his fingers; another beat him with a pole. The Indians spent the night in dancing and singing, compelling their prisoner to go round the ring with them. In the morning one of their orators made a long speech to him, and formally delivered him over to an old squaw, who took him to her wigwam and treated him kindly. Two or three of the young women who were carried away captive married Frenchmen in Canada and never returned. Instances of this kind were by no means rare during the Indian wars. The simple manners, gayety, and social habits of the French colonists among whom the captives were dispersed seem to have been peculiarly fascinating to the daughters of the grave and severe Puritans.

At the beginning of the present century, Judith Whiting was the solitary survivor of all who witnessed the inroad of the French and Indians in 1708. She was eight years of age at the time of the attack, and her memory of it to the last was distinct and vivid. Upon her old brain, from whence a great portion of the records of the intervening years had been obliterated, that terrible picture, traced with fire and blood, retained its sharp outlines and baleful colors.

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